The girls are in Smithson's Shakespeare garden. From the Victorian period to the turn of the century, some literary-minded people were really into random stuff mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, the logic being, I suppose, that the great Bard had imbued fennel and columbine with magic poetry power just by writing about them. Hence the phenomenon of Shakespeare gardens, which grow only plants mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. There was also a dude named Eugene Schieffelin who tried to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to America, which is why the New World now has starlings, a major pest and a threat to endemic songbirds and woodpeckers, which they outcompete. All the starlings in North America are descended from birds released by Schiefflelin into Central Park in 1890. Thanks a lot, Eugene Schieffelin, you dumbass.
Interestingly, it's been theorized that the starlings in North America may end up increasing to the point that they fill the huge gap in the ecosystem left by the passenger pigeon. This would mean that, in time, we'll get mega-flocks of starlings blacking out the sky for up to an hour at a time, filling the air with the deafening sound of their wingbeats and covering everything for miles around in their poo. Which would be upsetting, but kind of cool.
What's that? You don't want to hear about ecological crises caused by well-read Victorians? You want another installment of the Overlooked Manga Festival? Okay, but keep that fin de siècle state of mind, because I'm staying in the same general time period.
That's right. I want to talk about old manga. In fact, I want to talk about the oldest manga! Okay, maybe not the very oldest. But pretty darn old.
Go, old manga!
The Four Immigrants Manga (original title: Manga Yonin Shosei, "The Four Students Manga") was drawn by Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama, a Japanese immigrant who came to San Francisco in 1904. It consists of 52 two-page spreads--a year's worth of weekly comics--following the lives of four Japanese students in America. A book collection was published in San Francisco in 1931. Much later, manga historian Frederik Schodt rediscovered it and put out this translated edition with lots of excellent notes and explanations of the historical stuff.
Well, partly translated. Four Immigrants was originally a bilingual comic: the Japanese characters speak in Japanese, and the English-speaking characters speak in Kiyama's best (a.k.a., not very good) English. Schodt deals with this by keeping the original English text as written and translating the Japanese text in a typed font.
The first strip brings the four students to the Bay Area by ship. Some come to study, some to get rich. (Sample goal: "I want to become a successful California farmer like Mr. Ushijima, the 'potato king,' to help others come here, and contribute to the Yamato race!") They get quarantined on Angel Island, the evil West Coast version of Ellis Island, like thousands of other Asian immigrants during the years the island was in operation.
One interesting effect of Schodt's approach to the translation is that the Japanese characters all seem to be speaking perfect English, whereas all the non-Japanese characters seem to be speaking crude pidgin. This actually works really well, since it helps readers see the Japanese characters as "us" and the Americans as weird, frequently baffling foreigners, consistent with the general viewpoint of the comic.
Once on the mainland, the guys hook up with a local Buddhist church, pick Americanized names for themselves (we never learn their Japanese names), and get jobs as household servants. (One of the students notes with mixed feelings that he makes much more from this degrading manual labor than he'd get for a high-class clerking job in Japan.) There are wacky misunderstandings with their white employers, as when Henry, the aspiring artist, tries to wash a woman's back as Japanese household servants traditionally did:
Yes, there's racism aplenty, as the four immigrants deal pretty casually with the way white people order them around and call them "boy." However, to be fair to racist old white people (not that they deserve it), one thing The Four Immigrants Manga really drives home is that, a hundred years ago, everyone, of every background, was openly and casually racist. It wasn't just your drunk uncle at Christmas. The manga itself includes racist caricatures of blacks and Chinese (yeah, like the Chinese weren't going to get it from a Japanese cartoonist). The four immigrants refer to white people as keto and black people as kuroto (for the curious, keto is more intentionally insulting, but neither one is very polite).
And, as Henry, Fred, Frank, and Charlie acclimate to American culture, they sometimes lose patience with their fellow Japanese-Americans, too.
All in all, though, the immigrants settle fairly comfortably into San Francisco life.
Wait. What was that, Charlie? April 18, 1906? GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE, GUYS! GET! THE HELL! OUT!
Yes, the four immigrants survive the Great Quake, and many other historical events to hit San Francisco between 1904 and 1924. This book is an amazing time capsule, a snapshot of a fascinating place and time seen through the eyes of people (poor, immigrant, non-white) often treated as a marginal part of American history. I live in San Francisco, so I'm a little biased toward my city. But it's so much fun to see a cartoonist's take on, say the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, an event I've often wished I could've seen for myself.
Schodt's notes comment that the only surviving structure from the Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts, "is a prized backdrop for wedding photos." I had no idea.
And I love seeing glimpses of familiar neighborhoods and landmarks like the Ferry Building, seen in the below strip post-quake.
Ah, yes. The anti-Japanese exclusion movement. Discrimination against Asian-Americans in general, and Japanese-Americans in particular, is a running theme in The Four Immigrants Manga, especially in the later strips as Kiyama gets into a period when anti-Asian feeling was at its height. On the West Coast, particularly, Asian immigrant laborers were widely perceived as taking jobs from blue-collar whites, and a lot of hatred was directed toward them. Kiyama's characters discuss real-life incidents in which Japanese-Americans were harassed and attacked, as well as a slew of anti-Asian laws. Here, for example, they chat about segregated schools.
Fortunately, this was the last time Americans discriminated against an ethnic group seen as threatening Anglo-Saxon culture and taking jobs that rightfully belonged to white people, attacked minorities vigilante-style after getting riled up by the media, and pushed for laws designed to stop non-white, non-English-speaking people from getting into the country. The last time EVER.
Where was I? Oh, right. Manga.
The Four Immigrants Manga is awesome not only as an historical artifact and a milestone in the evolution of comics (Schodt points out that, since it follows an ongoing storyline and has a beginning and end, it could be viewed as the first graphic novel), but as a great read in its own right. And the endnote-laden Schodt translation is excellent, providing historical background and explaining all the untranslatable puns (the bane of manga editing). A great edition of a one-of-a-kind manga.
Previous Overlooked Manga Festivities:
Please Save My Earth
From Eroica with Love
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga
Your and My Secret
Knights of the Zodiac
The Drifting Classroom
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 1
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 2
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 3
OMF Special Event: Great Moments in Manga Baking
Shout Out Loud
Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor
Sexy Voice and Robo
OMF Special Event: 2006 Overlooked Manga Update